Business & Tech

Local startups look for lessons in Uber’s cultural chaos

Security guards outside Uber headquarters in San Francisco earlier this week.
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Security guards outside Uber headquarters in San Francisco earlier this week.

In just eight years, Uber’s rise to cultural ubiquity has made it the envy of startups everywhere. But some of the ingredients that spurred its rapid growth have recently become major liabilities, with complaints about an aggressive and insensitive culture laying low some of Uber’s top executives.

As young companies around Boston watch the chaos unfold in Silicon Valley, managers say they are looking for lessons from the ongoing debacle, which this week caused chief executive Travis Kalanick to temporarily step aside and forced out senior vice president Emil Michael.

Critics of the ride-hailing behemoth — which got very big, very fast — have cited its lack of inclusivity and diversity in the workplace, organizational opacity, and a reputation for vicious infighting.

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Local startups, however, insist that they have been set up to avoid problems like Uber’s. Some say they strive to avoid the win-at-all-costs environment that has proved both a blessing and a curse for Uber.

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“It’s something you can see was endemic in the culture from the beginning and it’s something that I’ve been expecting for a long time,” said Maneesh Sethi, founder of Behavioral Technology Group, which makes the Pavlok habit-training bracelet.

”Uber has been a grow-at-all-costs company since the beginning,” he added. “It means that you get very rude people, and people who are willing to do anything to win.”

While it’s more difficult to reset a company’s culture after years of operation, many praised Uber for taking steps to begin the process.

But in a development that underscored the challenge, billionaire businessman David Bonderman resigned from Uber’s board on Tuesday after saying at a meeting that greater participation by women meant “more talking.”

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Among the most significant events leading up to the company’s crisis was the posting of former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler’s account of discrimination and sexual harassment that she said infected the company all the way to the top.

Karen Rubin, vice president of growth at Owl Labs, a Boston company with a video and audio conferencing product, said she was encouraged to see that something came of the allegations, but wished the issue had been dealt with sooner.

“I’ve never seen such blatant sexual discrimination as what she outlined,” Rubin said of Fowler’s account. “I see a lot more unconscious bias that has to be worked on. It’s scary to see something where it was so pervasive and the company grew to such a size before anything happened.”

Rubin said Owl Labs tries to encourage employees to talk openly about issues around diversity, with the goal of helping people from different backgrounds understand each other.

Gail Goodman, the former chief executive of Constant Contact who now serves as a mentor and board member at area startups, said Kalanick’s leave of absence should put him on notice.

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“This certainly sent an unambiguous message that, number one, you are not invincible; number two, we can run this business without you; and number three, you have to wake up and change,” Goodman said. “Now it’s in his hands to decide whether to receive this message.”

Like others in the Boston startup sector, Goodman said young companies need to create inclusive and collaborative cultures from the start. Startups can grow fast, she said, and early mistakes can become pervasive before they know it.

“Culture and norms can be absorbed by observation,” she said. “As soon as you begin scaling up, you really should understand what your core values are.”

Some organizations in Boston have explicitly used Uber’s troubles as a way to spur dialogue.

Katie Burke, the chief people officer at Hubspot, said that shortly after Fowler’s blog post, a male engineer on the Hubspot team shared it on the company’s internal website.

She said the company responded point-by-point to the problems Fowler identified, reminding employees of their rights and the resources available to them.

“Often times in situations like this companies hide and kind of want to be invisible,” Burke said. “If you’ve read the news in the last few weeks and are just now saying we need to start listening to employees, you’re doing it wrong.”

Janelle Nanos and Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.